Lost in the Movies: Bed and Sofa

Bed and Sofa

Husband and wife are lying in bed, early in the Moscow morning. Kolia (Nikolai Batalov), the husband, is up first, groggy but awakened by the couple's energetic pet cat, who's leapt onto the bed. Mischievously, he grabs ahold of the kitty and shoves it in his sleeping wife's face. Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova) reacts as any interrupted sleeper would, batting it away and jerking up from her comfortable recline. Rubbing her eyes, smoothing down her bobbed hair and bangs, she glances at the grinning man-boy in bed next to her with a mixture of amusement and irritation. He laughs, but he's playing with fire by provoking her so. Before the day's over, he'll have introduced a creature much more threatening into the marital bed, even if old Red Army buddy Volodia (Vladimir Fogel), visiting from out of town, is initially relegated to the sofa.

Silent films and early talkies are often more provocative than the movies which followed (due to state censorship in Germany and Russia, the Production Code in America). Still, how many silents can you remember which stage their climax in an abortion clinic? Bed and Sofa, a 1927 sex comedy/drama (even its genre is not clearly delineated) engages most of the taboos: abortion, adultery, divorce, free love, menage a trois - all that's missing is homosexuality (though this certainly comes to mind amidst a long kiss on the lips, during which Volodia, embracing Kolia, thinks he's kissing Liuda; the conclusion, which finds the two men alone in the room, deciding who'll sleep where, also hints at this subtext). Indeed, this is a film where the wife's affair is revealed halfway through the movie - in most melodramas it would lead to a climactic fight; here it only begins the roundelay which finds both men passing in and out of the woman's affections and between her bedsheets.

Unlike with Jules and Jim, it is not the woman whose fickleness is made to seem crazy, but the men whose bullheaded pushiness makes us sympathize with Liuda. Embodying both Jazz Age and Slavic ideals, with her modish Louise Brooks hairdo topping a stockier, more boxy build, Liuda is torn between her attraction to the two workers who claim her affections - to the comforts of Kolia and the novelty of Volodia - and her frustrations with both of them. Meanwhile, an ominous portrait of Stalin - who had only just taken power in '27 - hangs on the wall alongside a calendar. Initially this seems like a necessary political gesture on the filmmaker's part, but eventually it leads one to tease out allegorical resonance in the onscreen threesome. Could Liuda be like the young Soviet Union, volleyed back and forth between different leaders who claimed her loyalty? Just as Stalin would eventually erase deviant Bolsheviks from Party history (he was already beginning to do this with Trotsky), Liuda replaces Kolia's portraits with Volodia's all around the room (Stalin, of course, stays put).

Whether or not all the picture-swapping is supposed to have political ramifications, it pays off dramatically in the end. Liuda rushes home to an empty apartment from the abortion clinic (where she went, not out of her own desire to end the pregnancy, but at the behest of her beaux, who jealously regard the incipient infant as the other man's). There she writes a goodbye note and takes her own picture out of its frame, at once liberating both her image and her body from the home where her initially adventurous sexual experiments came to be one more form of imprisonment. The movie concludes with the two male saps, one on the bed, one on the sofa (they've been switching back and forth throughout the movie) wondering what to do next. Meanwhile, Liuda leans out the train window, breathing the fresh air and rushing out of town just as we saw Valodia arriving in the beginning (his train bears him into Moscow, to borrow Churchill's characterization of Lenin's similar journey in 1917, "like a plague bacillus").

The film is composed of concrete units, a series of two-shots, close-ups, and inserts of important objects (or cats). The camera punches in and out of different elements within the scene, and switches angles without any movement. Not as reliant on the abrasive qualities of montage as were Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, director Abram Room utilizes editing to create a sense of space and drama, and divisions within both. Scrolling through the images on Netflix (where the film is available for instant viewing) I was surprised to discover that there are almost no shots featuring all three protagonists together - it's usually Liuda with Kolia, or Liuda with Valodia, or the two men with each other.

This subtly heightens the sense of claustrophobia, visualizes the trio's inability to accommodate one another, and highlights the film's assembly through relational cutting rather than juxtapositional montage or single, wide shots. Likewise, the movie is dialectical but not as aggressively or obviously as Eisenstein's works. Aside from the dichotomy of the title, Bed and Sofa opens and closes with the rushing train, features an airplane ride above - but significantly not out of - Moscow in the middle, and punctuates its narrative with comical and often symbolic feline interludes. The film is almost entirely enclosed in the apartment and various workplaces, but is bookended with outdoor sequences.

Ultimately, the portrait of Stalin is telling. Bed and Sofa seems to have its ear to the ground, and it buries both its style and even to a certain extent its message (both quite modern) beneath the cover of conventional storytelling. Soviet films would have to just that to survive in the years to come, yet even this subterfuge would not be enough. Liuda's quite fortunate in the end, to be escaping from the scene of her entrapment...her country, and its cinema, would not be so lucky.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


manwithoutastar said...

Hey there,

I got a copy of this film and watched it a few years ago after reading the people at the British magazine Close Up rave about it, particularly Ivor Montagu. I have to say I was a little disappointed! They held it up as the most important film of that year. Abortion is certainly a very radical subject matter, but didn't seem to go anywhere, as far as I could see. Otherwise it seemed quite a conventional menage-a-trois story. The style seemed quite ordinary, not nearly as stylish as the Soviet films that have become famous. But I may well have missed subtleties - maybe I'll watch it again sometime... I wanted to like it!

By the way, just saw The Road - that film is a stinker, don't bother with it!

MovieMan0283 said...

That's what appealed to me, manwithoutastar, the subtleties - the way it utilized many themes and stylistic devices running through Soviet cinema at the time but in a more hidden, subdued fashion. And I thought the menage a trois was a little more provocative than the usual ones of the period which, from what I've seen, are largely inadvertent - here the 3 choose to live together even after learning of the wife's infidelity. The abortion (or lack thereof) is more or less circumstantial to the film's general themes, though it's obviously key for the climax.

At any rate, I certainly wouldn't call it the best film of 1927 but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Haven't seen or read The Road. Oddly enough, your dismissal now makes me more curious to look into it!

Man Without a Star said...

The novel of The Road is great and I definitely recommend that one. The film is just wrong in so many ways. They didn't understand the book at all. The script just seems like a random selection of events from the book and the few changes that are made are just plain wrong, either adding to the sentimentalism or to the action.

The novel is one in which hardly anything happens and that reads as much like poetry as narrative fiction. It could not be successfully adapted to the screen without a huge amount of creativity to translate those ideas. Instead none of the ideas survive only the bare bones of the events that take place. There is no visual poetry whatsoever!

Cave's soundtrack is awful, completely sentimental - a recurrring tune is one of those very famous piano pieces (Bach or Mozart I can't remember which.) The music often detracts from potentially good performances, which you just can't concentrate on.

The apparent wish for gritty realism is completely undercut by the fact that all of the landscape shots seem to have been obviously computer-generated (e.g. a motorway ripped apart seen from high above)

Perhaps the most troubling thing is that it opens with images suggestive of the holocaust and closes with a cut from a dog's face to that of a little boy - a 'happy ending' that is definitely not earned...

My word verification here was 'ponce' - bizarre eh?

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